Münter, Gabriele (1877–1962)
Münter, Gabriele (1877–1962)
German artist and co-founder of the Blue Rider movement, one of the most important schools of 20th-century German Expressionist art. Name variations: Gabriele Munter. Pronunciation: GAH-bree-el MUHn-ter. Born on February 19, 1877, in Berlin, Germany; died on May 19, 1962, in Murnau; daughter of Carl Friedrich Münter (a dentist) and Wilhelmine (Scheuber) Münter; had two brothers and one sister; attended Lyceum for Girls in Koblenz; private art lessons from the Herford art organization "Malkiste"; private lessons from the Düsseldorf professor Willy Spatz and from the sculptor Hermann Küppers in Bonn; and classes at the Ladies Academy of the Association of Women Artists in Munich and the Phalanx School in Munich; never married.
With family, moved from Berlin to Herford, Germany (1878); with family, lived in Bad Oeynhausen before moving to Koblenz (1884); enabled by inheritance from mother to chart her own course in art and art training (1897); toured and visited in the U.S. (1898–1900); met Vassily Kandinsky, the beginning of a long-term personal and professional relationship (1902); traveled to Paris with Kandinsky (1903); visited Holland and Tunisia with Kandinsky (1905); had first solo exhibition at Cologne (1908); was a founding member, with Kandinsky, of the New Artists Association of Munich (1909); purchased house in Murnau, with separate section for Kandinsky (1909); along with Kandinsky, resigned from the New Artists Association and formed a new group, the "Blue Rider" (1911); participated in the first Blue Rider exhibition (1911); exhibited 84 paintings in the 12th exhibition of Der Sturm gallery in Berlin (1913); participated in an exhibition of "Expressionist painting" in Dresden and Breslau (1914); with beginnings of World War I, traveled with Kandinsky to Switzerland; traveled to Scandinavia to wait for Kandinsky there, taking up residence in Stockholm (1915); held first exhibition of her paintings in Stockholm (1915); took up residence in Copenhagen (1917); held exhibition of 93 oil paintings and 18 reverse-glass paintings in Copenhagen (1919); returned to Berlin and learned of Kandinsky's remarriage (1920); rebuffed attempt by Kandinsky emissary to retrieve his paintings (1921); exhibited paintings with the Associated Women Artists of Berlin (1926); began life with journalist and free-lance art historian Johannes Eichner (1929); submitted paintings, unsuccessfully, to the Nazi-sponsored exhibition of "Great German Art" (1933); was subject of criticism by the Nazi Bavarian Minister of Arts (1937); hid much of her work from Nazi government (1937–45), and from occupying American troops (1946); saw her reputation rise in the postwar years and was hailed as one of the few remaining members of the Blue Rider; had some of her works featured in a Blue Rider retrospective show in Munich (1949); was the subject of a show prepared by Eichner which toured German cities for four years (beginning in 1950); first exhibitions of her work in U.S. were held in Los Angeles and New York (1960–61).
Major works (paintings, woodcuts, linocuts): Kandinsky (1906); Child With Bottle (1907–08); Main Street, Murnau (1908); Return from Shopping: On the Streetcar (1908–09); Boating (1910); Red Cloud (1911); Hapsburg Square, Munich (1911); From Norway, Tjellebotten (1917).
Although the German painter Gabriele Münter was often known during her lifetime as a close associate of the Russian painter Vassily Kandinsky—and although she insisted that she was an "artistic dilettante"—her reputation has moved beyond the status of being a mere Kandinsky student. Her reputation rests, instead, on her work as a pioneer of German Expressionist art in the early years of the 20th century, art which used intense colors and strong lines to depict her own subjective reactions to still lifes and landscapes. Münter was also, along with Kandinsky and Alfred Kubin, one of the three founders of the Blue Rider, one of the most important movements in 20th-century German Expressionist art.
Münter was almost born American. Fearing arrest in Germany for his political activities during the years leading up to the Revolution of 1848, Münter's father Carl Friedrich Münter came to the United States in 1847. He worked as a proprietor of a general store until he earned a degree in dentistry at Cincinnati, Ohio. Years of moving around the United States followed, with Carl living for a time in Quincy, Illinois, where he married Lucinde Richardson , before moving on to live in Jackson, Tennessee. His wife died there in 1856. After a brief trip back to Germany, Carl Münter returned to Tennessee in 1857 and married Münter's mother, Wilhelmine Scheuber , a German immigrant.
According to family lore, only the American Civil War prevented Gabriele Münter from being born a U.S. citizen. Because of the conflict, the Münters decided to return to Germany in 1864, where a daughter and two sons were born in the late 1860s. Gabriele, born in 1877, was their youngest child. In Germany, their father built up a practice in Berlin as an "American dentist." The family then moved to Herford, Germany, in 1878, and much of Münter's childhood was spent there. After a period living in the resort town of Bad Oeynhausen, in 1884 the family moved to the town of Koblenz, at the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel rivers. Here Münter's father died in 1898; one of her brothers, August, had also died there in 1887, age 22.
Gabriele Münter's work reflects all of the artistic simplicity, loveliness, generosity, and openness with which she reacted to the world.
Münter demonstrated an early bent for art. "My early interest in drawing," she later wrote, "came from myself. Even as a child I practiced drawing with a pencil, particularly in drawing faces." Her first formal experience with art came at the Girls Lyceum of Koblenz, where the curriculum included a course teaching students to draw accurately by following a grid system. Münter's family encouraged her, giving her a set of watercolors when she was ten and later paying for a series of private lessons from local artists.
Münter's biographer Johannes Eichner, with whom she would spend the last 25 years of her life, insisted that she and her sister were allowed many more freedoms than most other German girls of the time. The Münter girls were not pushed into early marriages. They were allowed to ride bicycles and to smoke, and they were allowed to read controversial books and magazines. The reason, Eichner believed, was the influence of the family's American cousins, with whom they frequently visited.
After her mother died in 1897, Münter was able to use an inheritance to chart her own course of artistic training. She was not happy with the results. She began to take private artist's lessons from Professor Willy Spatz in the Women's Atalier of the Düsseldorf Academy. Yet she complained that the teaching at the academy was "not inspiring" and that "nobody seemed to take seriously the ambitions of a mere girl." For a time, she worked painting ornaments in a Düsseldorf studio and experimented by copying an oil painting in pastels.
Uncertain of what she wanted to do with art and searching for a distinctive style, Münter returned to live in Koblenz and decided, in 1898, to travel to the United States and visit her brother, Carl, who had married an American singer. She remained in the U.S. until 1900, visiting relatives in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas (where she joined a cattle drive), attending the St. Louis Exposition, and visiting tourist sites, such as Niagara Falls.
The two years in the United States gave her time to experiment with her drawing, which would become the basis of almost all her subsequent work. During her spare time, she sketched landscapes, family members, and plants and animals. She preferred drawing a single figure, often as part of a domestic scene, but during these years moved increasingly toward simplifying the figures she drew. It was a step toward abstraction in her art. "One cannot paint," she later observed, "what one cannot draw." Although she continued to think of her career as unfocused, the U.S. visit became a voyage of self-experimentation. Eichner maintained that her constant explorations demonstrated that she was "remarkably resistant to prevailing academic theories of artistic taste."
Münter charted her own inconsistent artistic path, filled with intense periods of experimentation as well as periods when her artistic development showed little change. When she returned to Germany in 1900, she took lessons from the Bonn sculptor Hermann Küppers for three months and then enrolled in the Academy of the Association of Women Artists in Munich. In 1902, she was highly impressed by a special exhibit of works by students of the Phalanx school, a new art school in Munich staffed by artists who wanted to work outside the existing juried system (which was used to select works to be shown in exhibits). The school also sought to introduce German art students to avant-garde foreign artists.
The main result of her decision to enroll in the Phalanx school was that she became a student of the Russian artist Vassily Kandinsky, who
showed a high degree of interest in both her and her work. Kandinsky, she wrote, explained "things in detail, clearly, and treated me as though I were a consciously striving person who can set herself problems and goals. This was something new to me and impressed me." She added that "he valued my talent highly." Kandinsky regarded her as an innate talent whom he could assist but not alter; he once told her that she had been given "everything by nature. All that I can do for you, is to protect and care for your talent so that nothing happens to it."
At Kandinsky's repeated urging, their relationship went beyond that of student and teacher. Kandinsky asked her to withdraw, for a time, from his nude modeling class, because his wife was often present. They began to travel together, often taking adjoining rooms at hotels. Their travels took them to The Hague, Tunisia, and Belgium, and they stayed in Paris together for part of 1906 and 1907. When Münter bought a house in 1909 in Murnau, in the Bavarian Alps, Kandinsky spent much of that year living in a first-floor apartment in the building.
Münter continued to experiment with her art, trying pencil sketches and then making them into paintings. When she explored techniques for outdoor paintings, Kandinsky provided advice on the use of the palette knife in landscape paintings. She also made woodcuts and, with his help, mastered the techniques of color printing with linoleum blocks. Although her woodcuts emphasized form and color, a characteristic of Expressionism, she conceded that she had really arrived at the "liberating brushmarks of Impressionism." Many of her early works sought, like those of the Impressionists, to present light and color as objectively as possible. By 1907, she had become well-enough known to exhibit six paintings in Paris and have several of her woodcuts published in a Paris periodical. When an exhibit of 80 of her paintings was held in Cologne in 1908, she had gained recognition as a professional artist.
Her work had also begun to exhibit the characteristics that would make her an early icon of German Expressionism. Her landscape paintings, which had become more flexible and less rigid, were increasingly painted in flat planes of color. While her basic style was flat, there were large areas of broadly colored forms, usually with dark outlines that reflected her consistent interest in drawing. Unlike the Impressionists, she was becoming less interested in portraying objective views of light and more interested in portraying her own inward reaction to sights and events.
Landscapes and still lifes became her forte. The forms in her work were increasingly simplified, almost abstractions, but she also liked to paint people. The human face, she wrote, was itself a symbol and an abstraction. Much of her work depicted the world of the child. Many of her paintings portrayed individuals in terms of life-circumstances such as gender or marriage, but the subjects also seemed oddly disconnected from their surroundings. A child with a doll seemed to be in a room, but the room was not portrayed; a painting, Returning from Shopping, carried the subtitle On the Streetcar, but there was no clue to the whereabouts of the streetcar in the picture.
Together with Kandinsky and others, Münter was a founder in 1909 of the New Artists Association of Munich, the first exhibit of which that same year included 10 of her paintings and 11 of her prints. The association's second show, in 1910, drew works by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. When one of Kandinsky's paintings was rejected for showing by the New Artists Association in 1912, Kandinsky and Münter resigned from the association. They organized a counter group, the Blue Rider, and a counter exhibition of works by German, Russian, and Austrian artists. With additional paintings by Paul Klee and others, the exhibit traveled to Berlin and other parts of Germany and to Scandinavia.
The Blue Rider came to represent the avantgarde of German Expressionism and modernism in art. Many of the earliest Expressionist paintings were exhibited in Der Sturm gallery in Berlin. When that gallery held its 11th exhibition in 1913, the show was devoted entirely to Münter, who had 84 paintings included; a selection of the paintings was sent as a traveling exhibit to Munich, Frankfurt, Dresden, Stuttgart and Copenhagen. Münter also was included in a special showing of "Expressionist" painting in 1914 in Dresden and Breslau.
With the advent of World War I, Münter and Kandinsky moved increasingly apart, although Kandinsky had promised to marry her after he secured a divorce. They moved to Switzerland at the start of the war, since Kandinsky, as a Russian national, could not remain in Germany.
In late November, Kandinsky entered Russia, with the understanding that they would meet in Sweden. But he later wrote Münter asking that the planned meeting in Sweden be delayed, adding, "For three months I have been living alone and am comfortable with this way of life.… I am certain of what I want only in matters concerning art.… I am less certain of what I want in my personal life.… Maybe it is easier for me to idealize love than to achieve it."
Kandinsky did not reject the idea of their meeting in Scandinavia, however. The result was that Münter would spend the rest of the war years in Scandinavia, increasingly isolated from both artistic inspiration and from fellow German artists whose conversation and ideas had stimulated her. In July 1915, Münter had set out for Stockholm. That September, Kandinsky, claiming that tight finances made it impossible for him to stay in Sweden, wrote: "Regarding the marriage I must warn you that I cannot do it before the end of the war." Toward the end of that year, however, he did arrive in Stockholm, sharing a room with Münter.
In 1916, the two posed together for formal photographs, and Kandinsky published an essay, "On the Artist," which was dedicated to her and also edited by her, but which somehow omitted his praise of her as "a talent of distinct national character." He left for Russia in March 1916, and during the rest of that year Münter used memories of a trip to Norway to produce landscape paintings and paintings of friends. In 1917, she was invited to exhibit 31 paintings at a joint showing of the Association of Swedish Women Artists and the Association of Women Artists of Austria, held in Stockholm. That same year, she took up residence in Copenhagen, and an exhibition of 100 of her paintings, including 20 reverse-glass paintings and prints, was held in Copenhagen.
Living in Scandinavia, Münter lost touch with colleagues who had helped provide a sense of direction for her art, and she experienced increasing financial difficulties. She took commissions for portrait painting and was forced to find increasingly smaller quarters. While staying on the Danish island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea in 1919, she advertised for students; only one replied. Nevertheless, that year she arranged an exhibition of 93 of her oil paintings and 18 of her reverse-glass paintings in Berlin.
After Münter returned to Germany in 1920, taking up residence first at Munich and then once again in Murnau, she learned that Kandinsky had remarried. In the early 1920s, Kandinsky returned to Germany to teach at the Bauhaus in Weimar, but he declined to contact Münter. Kandinsky sent emissaries to collect paintings which he had stored in Münter's Murnau house, but she refused to respond until he contacted her personally and admitted that they had been husband and wife.
Finally, in response to an embittered letter from her, Kandinsky wrote her a letter in which he argued that "marriage can succeed only if both parties want it to.… I feel guilty for having broken my promise to marry you legally.… Please do not hate me." Gathering her thoughts for a series of notebooks she kept, Münter concluded in 1928: "I let myself be lied to and was cheated out of my love.… Someone asked me: Did you learn something from him as an artist? I said of course, but while he took pains to correct others, he did not do the same with me."
During the 1920s, she conceded that she was unsure of herself in art, "moving restlessly from place to place." Her paintings showed little change or development. Yet for art critics she was emerging as a symbol of modernism in German art. The first postwar exhibition of avantgarde art in Germany, the International Art Exhibition in Düsseldorf in 1922, recognized not only Münter's achievements but the work of German women artists in general, including another invited artist, Käthe Kollwitz . Münter's work also appeared in a Berlin exhibition of the Association of Women Artists in 1926 and a Women's Art Exhibition in Berlin in 1927.
In 1929, Münter met the man with whom she would spend the last 25 years of her life, the journalist and freelance art historian Johannes Eichner. In his biography of Münter, Eichner portrayed her primarily as an artist of still lifes, perhaps the "premier" artist of that genre, and he devoted much of his time publicizing her artistic achievements. Münter and Eichner worked together in organizing an exhibition of her paintings and woodcuts, entitled "Gabriele Münter: 1908–1933."
Münter's art was not appreciated by the National Socialist government of Germany. When the Nazi government announced plans for an exhibition of "Great German Art" at Munich in 1933, intended to showpiece "healthy" German art, Münter's entries were rejected. Eichner took her to see it anyway, followed immediately by a visit to the government's exhibition of "degenerate" modern art. Nazi partisans picketed her "Gabriele Münter 1908–1933" exhibition. A special exhibition of her paintings, held in 1937 in conjunction with her 60th birthday, was publicly criticized by the Bavarian minister of art, a Nazi.
Urged by Eichner to become more commercial, she began a series of paintings of Olympia Street, a major project of the Nazi government in connection with the Berlin Olympics of 1936. But her finances had deteriorated further; in dire straits, she sold her Murnau house to Eichner, who used his own funds to renovate and update the building.
Münter and Eichner worked together to hide her paintings—first from the Nazi government and then, in 1945 and 1946, from occupying American troops. At the end of the war, her American relatives sent her a constant stream of packages containing food and clothing; in gratitude, she sent them sketches and paintings she had done during her American visit of 1898–1900.
Münter's life during the late 1940s and the 1950s—at least until Eichner's death in 1958—was filled with constant visits from critics and collectors, many from the United States, who viewed her, with some reverence, as the last living representative of the Blue Rider movement. Her works were included in a Blue Rider retrospective exhibit in 1949, and Eichner arranged for a show of many of her works which toured German cities in the 1950s. Two years before her death in 1962, Münter gained international recognition when a bicoastal exhibit of her works—in Los Angeles and New York—was held in the United States. For a woman who had insisted that she was an "artistic dilettante," it was an especially satisfying development.
Eichner, Johannes. Kandinsky und Gabriele Münter: Von Ursprüngen moderner Kunst. Munich: Bruckmann, 1957.
Heller, Reinhold. Gabriele Münter: The Years of Expressionism. Munich and NY: Prestel, 1997.
Mochon, Anne. Gabriele Münter: Between Munich and Murnau. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.
Behr, Shulamith. Women Expressionists. Oxford: Phaidon, 1988.
Dube, Wolf Dieter. Expressionists and Expressionism. NY: Skira, 1983.
Lahnstein, Peter. Gabriele Münter. Etal: Buch-Kunstverlag, 1971.
Many of Gabriele Münter's and Johannes Eichner's papers and correspondence are housed in the Gabriele Münter and Johannes Eichner Foundation in Munich, Germany. The Foundation was created by her will, which expressed the desire that it be dedicated to fostering both the "appreciation" and the "production" of "modern art." There is also some correspondence of Münter's in the Getty Center for the History of Art and Humanities in Santa Monica, California. An extensive collection of Münter's works is included in the Stadtische Galierie in the Lenbachhaus in Munich. One of largest collections of German art in the United States, including a number of works by Münter, is in the Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Art Museum.
Niles Holt , Professor of History, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois